Friday, May 1, 2015

Christian Unity in Full Bloom

Stop #1 on the Religious Unity Tour!
 

Ecumenical  Advocacy Days

 
In the halls of Congress. Photo: advocacydays.org.
 
A vibrant gathering has been taking place in Alexandria, Virginia, one weekend every year since 2003.  In the shadow of the Pentagon, Christians from dozens of traditions pray, study and act on a specific theme of injustice which has been chosen for that year.  Vibrant interdenominational worship and challenging discussions prepare participants in mind, body and spirit for the culminating event: A Lobby Day on Capitol Hill. On that final Monday, this ecumenical assembly divides up by Congressional district to advocate for the less fortunate.
 
There are over 60 sponsor organizations for Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD).  These include the official justice and advocacy offices of church denominations, religious orders and faith-based non-profits.  It is hard to define a group of people by a single expression.  Calling this "the peace movement" or a collection of diverse "social justice movements" only goes so far as descriptors, but for the sake of simplicity I will use these terms interchangeably in this post. 
 

Under the watchful eye of Abraham Lincoln, faith leaders discuss
 mass incarceration from a Gospel perspective with Congressional staff members.
Photo: advocacydays.org.

The theme for this year was Breaking the Chains:  Mass Incarceration & Systems of Exploitation.  Racism, for-profit prisons, "mandatory minimums," torture, solitary confinement, immigrant family detention, human trafficking and related issues were all explored in great detail and passion.  The economic and cultural impact of mass incarceration was shown in its debilitating reality.  The verdict is clear:  The prison system in the USA is in dire need of reform as it does not come close to living up to Gospel values.  Over 1,000 advocates participated in the lobby this year.
 
Click here for the Lobby Day asking points.
 
The event kicked off with impassioned preaching by African Methodist Episcopal and United Church of Christ pastor Rev. Traci deVon Blackmon, shown below:
 
Rev. Traci deVon Blackmon. Photo: advocacydays.org.

Bishop José García from the Church of God of Prophecy led the interdenominational worship on Sunday morning. He compared the gathering to the "school of prophets" mentioned in 1 Kings.
 
 
Bishop José Garcia. Photo: advocacydays.org.
Recordings of the talks are available here.
 
This is a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-denominational gathering that includes mainline and evangelical Christians.  Participants and sponsors range from American Baptist to Christian Scientist to Catholic along with the full range of mainline Protestants.  Presbyterians are one of the strongest core members of this gathering.
 
It might be more curious to mention what is absent.  In the worship services, workshops and talks, there are few appeals for Christian unity.  There are no extended dialogues in which speakers try to convince the participants to reach across denominational lines for a common purpose.  It is mentioned, but very few people are spending energy making the case for Christian unity.  On the contrary, the unity of all Christians is simply a given. 
 
As a result, it is very difficult to talk about Christian unity in the peace and social justice movements.  Unity happens so seamlessly, so well and it has been going on for so long that it is puzzling to even know what to say, other than just to say that much.  It is quite an impressive tradition.  People get along so well, religious harmony is taken for granted and working ecumenically is second nature to most folks.  It is not shocking, novel or new to work across denominational lines for peace and justice.  In fact, it is assumed.
 
The ecumenical story here is that there is not much of a story.  Paradoxically, that is quite a tale to tell.
 

Visible Signs of the Kingdom

 
EAD is a faith-based movement.  It comes from denominations, and it comes from individuals.  It attracts people with certain theologies, and over time, it has developed its own styles, attitudes and faith perspectives.  A Catholic at EAD may feel she has more in common with a Mennonite at EAD, for example, than with members of her own congregation.
 
What is interesting is that it has not become a denomination in its own right.  Folks still pretty much remain as members of their respective denominations.  In this way, they act as salt of the earth.  They pray, study and act on the nonviolence of Jesus and the social activism that they feel called to through the Gospel.  They gather for mutual encouragement and collaboration in mission. Afterwards, they return to flavor their respective churches and communities back home.  When folks talk of Christian unity, often the first thing that comes to mind is the relationship between denominations. The role of non-institutional, organized-but-informal movements in my opinion has always been far underrated in their importance as a representation of the Body of Christ.
 
There is probably no other group that embodies religious harmony as well as the peace and social justice movements. Unity is just the context through which business is done for them.  Perhaps it is because when you work for social justice, you realize very quickly that you simply cannot accomplish much by yourself.  Helping to usher in God's Kingdom and promote peace, harmony and justice on earth takes a village and more.  It requires all hands on deck.  It has to happen through community; it has to happen through collaboration.  It means reaching out to people that at one time you would not normally reach out to.  Through that work, a unity has been realized that the official denominations have yet to fully implement themselves.  Still, a visible sign of the Kingdom has been seen, and we cannot now un-see it.  The Body of Christ clearly extends beyond the reach of denominational bounds, leaving to those denominations the task of figuring out how to catch up (we will see how those denominations are coming along in the next post!)

When it comes to the story of Christian unity, the peace and social justice movements are strong witnesses.  Perhaps it makes sense that this would be the first stop on my journey of religious unity.  This is Ecumenism 101.  Christians united for a common purpose is THE primary starting point.  Having written that, I have to also wonder if the peace and justice movements do not represent an intro to unity but are rather the experienced, advanced level students.  It is easy to get the sense that these folks are so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to unity, simply waiting for everyone else to catch up.  They accept and appreciate their differences and seamlessly work together with a common spirit.  
 

Part 2 of this Religious Unity Tour will showcase the National Workshop on Christian Unity: Exploring the work that denominations themselves are doing to express in their structures the unity of the Body of Christ.  Stay tuned for that post!

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